Musings of a Veteran Public School Teacher: Experiences From the Classroom During the Pandemic
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I still remember the date, Friday, March 13, 2020. Our administration had informed us just the day before that we would be moving to remote learning the following Monday due to the ensuing pandemic.
Does anyone recall ever using the term “pandemic” prior to 2020 in normal conversation? Neither did I.
Nor had I heard of anyone teaching a large group of high school musicians remotely before. I encouraged (required) the students to take their instruments and music home, not knowing if I would see them in person for the rest of the school year.
I cleaned out the room, stacked the chairs neatly, and unplugged the fridge in my office.
I am what one might call “old school,” at least that’s what my twenty-something daughters call me.
I have been in the same job for 24 years as Director of Bands at Marquette Senior High School. Although I would like to think that I am progressive, cool, moderately-technologically advanced for my age and still wild about my students, I have developed classroom norms and techniques for connecting with my students over the years that have been born from years of experience.
I have believed that a solid relationship between teacher and student is based on mutual respect, admiration, and daily face-to-face interaction.
So now, as I was bombarded with all kinds of new terms like asynchronous, Zoom, onboarding, Google Meet, Brightspace–the list goes on and on–how would I make this work with online education?
For the first weeks of the pandemic, I could see the confusion in the eyes of my students behind the computer screens during our office hours. We, as the leaders and adults, were trying to do our best to continue instruction and maintain enthusiasm, and the students were gamers, at first.
I did my best to hold things together, but let’s face it, one can only do so much with theory lessons, composition assignments, supplemental activities and practice logs. As the weather warmed, student interest in their online education waned. My teaching colleagues reported similar experiences.
Over the summer I wondered, as I’m sure my colleagues did, what the fall would bring. Would we be returning to face-to-face instruction? If so, what would that look like?
More importantly, if we were to return to face-to-face instruction, how would we navigate the COVID-19 virus safeguards that would be in place for our protection and that of the students?
When we got the word that not only would we be returning to face-to-face instruction, but we would be providing hybrid and online education simultaneously, my world caved in. The “drinking out of a garden hose” analogy was in full play. How would I provide three different means of delivery of content? Where would we rehearse? How many students would actually show up? What about my safety and the safety of my family?
Many other unanswered questions remained, and the feeling of entering a building with a masked-up group of staff and students was truly a terrifying prospect, not to mention the mountain of increased workload.
We arrived for our first day of teaching in the fall with a new set of guidelines procedures, staggered eating and dismissal times, unlimited PPE, new arrangements of physical class set-ups, and limited class sizes. In short, our administration did a truly phenomenal job of getting the building and classrooms ready for our new challenges.
Personally, I was given a new, larger classroom, and though the acoustics weren’t the greatest, I didn’t know of another band director that was given the opportunity to rehearse in a gymnasium daily. We were given the opportunity to order instrument-specific PPE along with specialized masks that allowed the students to play their instruments with the masks on. I was grateful.
During the first B-flat scale in six months, a standard warm-up, I actually shed a tear.
So how are things going, now that we are halfway through the school year?
I would say remarkably well–with a few caveats. The fall went very well, and the attendance of the face-to-face students was actually quite good. As the fall progressed, however, the virus began to take its toll, and many students and staff were affected by positives and contact-tracing measures.
We navigated, successfully, a shutdown to full online delivery from mid-November through the Christmas and New Year holidays. The students have been better this time at staying on task as we navigate the various changes in curriculum delivery.
As the new year dawned, news of a vaccine gave teachers and students hope that we would be able to return to some form of normalcy very soon. As of this writing, all school staff that have the desire to be vaccinated will have that opportunity by the end of February.
Things aren’t the same as in past years, however, and for those of us who know what our students are missing, it can be a bitter pill. There is something very special about preparing for a performance, and the lessons learned from the preparation.
We have yet to perform a concert, and we do not know if we’ll be able to do that before the school year ends. Since performance is such an important part of our curriculum, it saddens me that the students and their parents haven’t had that opportunity to see and hear the fruits of the labors of these young musicians.
In spite of this, I am still amazed at what I get to do every day. I love my job, my students, and my curriculum, and the pandemic hasn’t changed that. I am getting better at reading emotions behind the masks.
I can sense the energy and excitement that the students bring to class each day. Our socially-distanced environment is awkward–but so much better than nothing, and I am more convinced than ever that much more is to be learned in a team-centered environment that cannot come from a screen.
Will this pandemic change the way we deliver curriculum? Time will tell.
Has the value of face-to-face education been proven? Anecdotally, I would say absolutely. Do I worry about the future of these students and their perceived educational gaps from the last few months? Yes, of course I do.
But I also know that my students are remarkably resilient and gritty, more than we give them credit for. Will the pandemic change me as a teacher? I certainly hope so. Much of the minutia that used to bother me has fallen away in favor teaching and learning with my students daily.
If that is to be the silver lining and main lesson from this experience, I welcome it.
Dr. Laura Coleman, President of Bay de Noc Community College in Escanaba, MI, is one
Talent is needed everywhere these days, and the Dickinson County area is experiencing a tight